Review: The Feral Detective by Jonathan Lethem

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Phoebe Siegler first meets Charles Heist in a shabby trailer in the desert outside of Los Angeles. She’s on a quest to find her friend’s missing daughter, Arabella, and hears that Heist is preternaturally good at finding people who don’t want to be found. A loner who keeps his pet opossum in a desk drawer, Heist has a laconic, enigmatic nature that intrigues the sarcastic and garrulous Phoebe. It takes some convincing, but he agrees to help.

The unlikely pair traverse California’s stunning Inland Empire, navigating the enclaves of hippies and vagabonds who aim to live off the grid. They learn that these outcasts exist in warring tribes–the Rabbits and the Bears–and that Arabella is likely caught in the middle. As Phoebe tries to delicately extricate her, she realizes that Heist has a complicated history with these strange groups and that they’re all in grave danger.

Jonathan Lethem’s first detective novel since Motherless Brooklyn delivers the same memorable delights: ecstatic wordplay, warm and deeply felt characters, and an offbeat sense of humor. Combined with a vision of California that is at once scruffy and magnificent, The Feral Detective emerges as a transporting, comic, and absolutely unforgettable novel.


The Feral Detective starts with Phoebe traveling from New York City to the Inland Empire to find her friend’s daughter, Arabella, who is obsessed with Leonard Cohen and always talked about going to Mt. Baldy because this is where Cohen lived at a Buddhist monastery for five years. Phoebe employs a detective, Charles Heist, to help her navigate the situation and find her friend. The adventure Phoebe takes to find Arabella also opens her eyes to another completely different America that she knows nothing about. 

This seems like a reactionary novel, one that starts with the election of Donald Trump and the fallout many people feared. Phoebe walks into Heist’s office three days before Trump’s inauguration, and throughout the entire novel, this changing of the presidency is on the back of Phoebe’s mind. While she searches for Arabella, she runs into several different communities of desert dwellers, people who are living their lives in communities away from the things that she worried about, like politics and the country. They have their own politics and country to live with without worrying about the president. One of the biggest threats to their home is people like Phoebe. There is a juxtapose between the Phoebe being in New York City, a place crowded with people and feeling pretty alone, and Phoebe being in the California desert, a place that is supposed to be desolate but is crowded with people who welcome her, even though she is a stranger. 

Jonathan Lethem’s novel spends most of it’s time off the grid, where there is no internet or cellphone signal. You can feel this in the writing. Phoebe’s narration is thoughtful but also prickly and sometimes a little bored, like she wants to interject herself into the situation even though she does not know the danger she has become entangled with. She tries to tell people what to do and gets upset and offended when she is told no. There are times when she comes off as a person who is looking down on Charles Heist and all of his acquaintances because they are not doing what she says or are letting her into their loop of understanding. This reflects back onto an entitlement some people feel when they meet another group of people they do not completely understand, and it also swings back around to her feelings of the election. She comes out of her bubble and sees people who elected President Trump, pretty much people she did not have to interact with in her New York bubble. She has the world pegged in her mind a certain way, through the lens of a New Yorker, but it is the people she meets in her journey into the desert that changes her worldview. Living on the internet is much easier than talking to people in real life. Phoebe is forced to be with people she does not understand, and without the internet, all she has is people to talk to and rely on. There are rewards in the difficult practice. 

The Feral Detective has given me many things to think about, and I do know that this is the point. At the core the message is to get out of our comfort zone, our bubble, and learn about people we know nothing about. Finding things in common is much easier when we actually try. This can be seen as Jonathan Lethem’s own optimistic reaction to the elections in 2016, one where people need to get away from the limits of the day to day world in which they live and try to creates bonds with new people.

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